Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Waltrip's Monday Night Future May Change
He is a franchise for SPEED who dates back to the early days of the network being called SpeedVision. He is an institution who has outlasted multiple show hosts, many panelists and several US Presidents.
He has survived tough personal issues, a devastating start to his Sprint Cup Series team and several mediocre seasons behind the wheel. Now, he appears to be on the verge of another major change that may well affect his TV career.
Michael Waltrip Racing is scheduled to make a major announcement next week. It is widely rumored that Waltrip will remove himself from driving in 2010 and hand Martin Truex Jr. the keys to the #55 car. This will allow Waltrip to focus on his team ownership and his TV career in the broadcast booth.
It was Johnny Benson and Ken Schrader who partnered with Waltrip for many years on Monday nights. The show on both SpeedVision and SPEED had several different names as the sponsors changed for NASCAR's top series. It began as Inside Winston Cup Racing from a hole-in-the-wall studio at Sunbelt Video in Charlotte, NC.
Over the seasons, TV executives had also come and gone behind the scenes. Johnny Benson was rudely dismissed from the show without as much as a goodbye or video tribute. Benson did not have a Cup Series ride and the former SPEED management wanted younger Cup drivers on the show.
Eventually, Schrader also was eliminated when the program became This Week in NASCAR and moved to the new High Definition SPEED studios in north Charlotte. Schrader also no longer drove in the Cup Series, so he could react to the highlights but was now unable to speak from a first-hand perspective.
If Waltrip steps away from driving in 2010, he may join the list of former panelists who are no longer active in the series. In all the years that the show has aired, there has never been a Cup Series owner as a regular panelist, except for Waltrip.
Chad Knaus was the first non-driver to participate in the show on a regular basis. He brought a spark and a new perspective to the program that is missed when only Greg Biffle and Waltrip are on the show. Having a crew chief's view really rounds-out what the drivers are telling host Steve Byrnes.
Ironically, the first video clip on this Monday's show was Waltrip getting spun at Loudon by Scott Speed. Waltrip finished the race in 24th position and is currently 32nd in points for the 2009 season. The good news is that none of that seems to affect his TV presence.
Over the years, Waltrip has always been "the show" on Mondays and that continues. Now, paired with Byrnes, Waltrip runs a string of inside jokes during the show that almost always has his fellow panelist looking confused. Monday was no exception.
TWIN is now in HD, on a big TV studio set and surrounded by fancy artwork and graphics. In a way, it has become like many other modern TV sports shows. Stripped of the quirkiness that included the regular dumpster pick-up, Waltrip operating the replay control and Allen Bestwick on the verge of a stroke, the show is searching for a new identity.
SPEED provided a big boost when they allowed the program to begin showing the highlights of the weekend's race first and then previewing the next race. Having SPEED demand that the preview lead the show was a big mistake and put the show behind in credibility and viewership.
Now, things are hitting a comfortable stride with viewers. Knaus and Biffle are known quantities who speak well and are comfortable with Waltrip's hijinks. Byrnes is a steady presence who SPEED viewers see regularly on the NASCAR trail and comes to the show with tremendous racing credibility.
While the technical issues have come a long way, Monday's program still suffered from the audio troubles of this season. When the first highlights were rolled, the NASCAR Media Group tried to mix the "natural sound" of the cars under the commentary. The zooming of the cars drowned-out the announcers.
On the next video clip, loud rock music rolled under the pit crew highlights. Once again, it was hard to hear the panelists until the video was over and the music stopped. Then, the race highlights had both the rock music and the "natural sound" of the cars. Needless to say, it just did not work.
One element that may affect this is the studio layout. The talent wear clip-on Lavaliere-style microphones but have to turn their heads each time to speak to a different member of the panel. Poor Greg Biffle was in the middle and swung his head from side-to-side during the entire show. It might be time for a change.
TWIN provided a solid recap of all three races from the weekend along with some great features and a preview of the upcoming Daytona race. Drawing from the NMG library, this show cannot be beat for exclusive footage and outstanding editing.
There is little doubt that the Monday TV franchise for SPEED will continue next season. However, there may be some issues to iron-out before the 2010 shows begin in February. We will all know next week if one of those issues involves a certain Sprint Cup Series owner who may well retire as a driver.
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